Tails magazine presents...

MOMMY TAILS: Teaching Compassion When Along Came a Spider

In Help the Animals on June 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm

As a mom, I am already fully aware that my children sometimes behave in inexplicable and undeniably odd ways. My middle son has a penchant for wearing his older sister’s sparkly pink clogs, and my baby prefers to sing ABBA music to traditional nursery rhymes. Yet I can’t help but feel that there are far too many parents out there–and members of society in general–who brush off unacceptable behavior as kids just being kids.

This seems especially true when it comes to how adults perceive children’s treatment of animals. After a long holiday weekend of excessive cable viewing, I started tallying up the number of shows in which characters joked about pre-teen boys blowing up frogs with bottle rockets. And, with every manner of insect suddenly emerging with the onset of warmer weather, I’ve noticed numerous instances of kids squashing or systematically antagonizing whatever happens to crawl their way. In most cases, there’s no apparent reason or excuse for this behavior, except for the fact that the unfortunate victim “was only a bug.”

As a writer for Tails, I’ve interviewed Chicago police who have told me about youngsters that are seemingly immune to the pain and suffering of animals involved in dog fights. And we’ve all heard about the psychological studies that discuss how famous serial killers started their legacy of violence by torturing neighborhood cats. Granted, this is slightly more drastic than the little boy down the street stepping on a lightning bug, but there’s a common theme to which parents absolutely need to pay attention.

How children are taught to treat living creatures inevitably equates to how they learn to treat their fellow-human beings. Sure, it’s easy enough to laugh off the line in a sitcom that takes a blase attitude toward obliterating amphibians with fireworks. And, no, I don’t phone the school social worker the minute I see a preschooler dislodging an anthill with her gym shoe. But it’s just as easy to encourage kids to practice compassion as it is to silently (and lazily) stand by while they don’t.

For example, my 5-year-old daughter used to get hysterical every time she saw a spider make its way across the ceiling. Maria would scream at us to “kill it.” Alternately, she would charge after it with whatever object she believed might effectively dispatch the creature to St. Francis’s loving arms. All in all, not exactly atypical behavior for a little girl.

I don’t want to give anyone out there the wrong idea either. I don’t run some Halloween critter haven that shelters bats, spiders, and similar species of creepy-crawlies. What’s more, there are moments when I have to swat at or spray an unfortunate but unwanted visitor that threatens to sting or bite my family members.

On the other hand, I have found that it doesn’t take an incredible amount of effort to relocate a spider outside or to simply leave it alone if the arachnid presents no immediate danger. I’ve explained to my daughter that these creatures–like all living things–have a purpose. I’ve told her that, in most cases, they’re harmless and tend to frequent areas of our home (think the basement) where they can easily snag some six-legged household pest for a snack. So, to look at the situation from a practical perspective, I’m saving money I might otherwise spend on a professional exterminator.

More importantly, however, this entire process set the stage for one of those rare “let’s use this opportunity to learn a lesson” moments that most parents absolutely crave. Maria received a mini-science lecture and no longer panics when she spots a web in a corner of the basement. Just as significantly, she got a chance to see some tangible benefits to reacting with empathy rather than hysteria. I’d like to think that one day she’ll unconsciously rely on this lesson in her dealings with other people.

Now, I get that not everyone adores spiders. But I also understand that you still don’t have to go out of your way to taunt, injure, or decimate anything with a pulse, no matter how hair-raising it might be. Consequently, I hope that moms and dads don’t simply shrug their shoulders or look the other way when their kids demonstrate a lack of compassion toward animals or play a role in perpetrating their suffering. Behaving in this manner doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a Jeffrey Dahmer on your hands, but it does–at the very least–signify that a discussion needs to be had about how all living things have feelings. Besides, there’s a certain satisfaction I take in hearing Maria explain to her friends how she used to kill spiders but now instead names them after her favorite Disney princesses . . .

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